36 hours in Cartagena, Colombia
By Shannon Sims
Cartagena de Indias, a colonial port city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, can be so hypnotically hot (even with the ocean breeze and occasional tropical downpour) that visitors may feel as if they are drifting through a dream world of cobblestone lanes and Afro-Colombian drumbeats — a sensation captured by the magical realism in Gabriel García Márquez’s Cartagena-set novels. A weekend is perfect for a robust introduction through two adjacent, walkable neighborhoods. The Old Town is still surrounded by the stone walls built by Spanish colonists, who also left behind opulent mansions and churches. Neighboring Getsemani is an artsy, semi-residential enclave with a popular street-party scene, overlooked by the 16th-century fortress that looms on a hill nearby. And if the heat does get to you, order a limonada de coco, the slushy coconut limeade that keeps coastal Colombians deliciously cool.
3 p.m. | Snack your way around
Kick off a visit with a walking tour through the city’s connected Old Town and Getsemani neighborhoods, the triangular heart of the city between the Caribbean Sea and San Lázaro Lagoon. Several groups offer free walking tours departing from the egg-yolk-colored main gate and clock tower, called the Puerta del Reloj, the original entrance into the walled city. For a more curated experience, Cartagena Connections adapts guided tours to visitors’ interests, such as architecture, history or photography (two-hour group tours start around 123,000 Colombian pesos, or $30, per person; private tour rates vary). The popular street food tour includes stops to taste wedges of salted green mango, corn arepas filled with cheese, and mamoncillo, a local lychee-like fruit.
5 p.m. | Stroll and spot a sloth
Some of Cartagena’s most exquisite moments are impromptu scenes found when strolling aimlessly through the Old Town’s narrow streets, past bougainvillea-covered colonial buildings and palm-tree studded squares. Walk through Parque del Centenario, a compact park that some monkeys and sloths call home. Stop by several shops within walking distance: Evok makes chocolates infused with Amazonian fruits; Ábaco Libros y Café, adored by travelers, offers a cozy world of books and coffee; St. Dom has chic Colombian designer clothes and jewelry; Loto del Sur has soaps and lotions used in some of Colombia’s finest boutique hotels; and Silvia Tcherassi has colorful long dresses. Stop by El Centro Artesano Guazuma for crafts like baskets — nicknamed four breasts for their shape — woven by Indigenous women from the Guapi area of Colombia’s western coast.
6 p.m. | Watch the sunset
Perch on top of history by watching the sunset on the famous walls, or Las Murallas, that surround the Old Town. King Philip III of Spain ordered the nearly 7 miles of thick stone walls built after British privateer Francis Drake captured and plundered Cartagena in 1586. The walls, along with the port and San Felipe de Barajas Castle, have been recognized by UNESCO as one of the most extensive examples of military architecture in the Western Hemisphere. Near the westernmost stretch of the wall, the sun descends right over the Caribbean. Many visitors join the long queue here to watch from Café del Mar, a restaurant beside the wall. But locals often enjoy the sunset free — and without the line — by bringing provisions and finding a spot on the wall’s warm stones, a practice they jokingly call murallando (“walling”).
8 p.m. | Taste the Caribbean
Mar y Zielo is a picturesque restaurant hidden inside a colonial mansion in the center of the Old Town. On one floor, the open kitchen faces a wall of tropical plants and a moody, open-air bar; up another set of stairs, a lush rooftop awaits for a starlit meal. Diners can try dishes with regional ingredients like stewed goat (88,000 pesos); croquettes of jaiba, a typical crab found along the Colombian coast (56,000 pesos); or, to drink, a frozen, magenta-colored corozo juice, made from the tart, cherrylike local fruit (12,000 pesos).
9:30 p.m. | Revel in the Old Town
After dark, the Old Town is a cacophony of hawkers, street performers and horse-drawn carriages (skip, the animals are often not treated well). Prostitutes also frequent the area; be advised that sex trafficking has been exacerbated by instability in neighboring Venezuela. Despite these realities, the Old Town in the evening is well lit, beautiful and busy. Start at the Plaza de San Diego, on the walled city’s eastern end, where vendors sell souvenirs and snacks like carimañolas, fried yucca dough stuffed with meat (2,000 pesos). Then swing by Alquímico, a three-level party palace with a rooftop dance floor. There may be a line to enter, but usually no cover. Farther west, on the Plaza de San Pedro Claver, El Barón offers Latin America’s finest spirits paired with cigars from across the region.
8 a.m. | Start with local coffee
Colombia is one of the world’s biggest coffee producers, so no visit is complete without tasting a local brew. Head to the Getsemani neighborhood — a funkier-in-a-good-way version of Old Town, and just a short walk away — to find Libertario Coffee Roasters, a coffee geek’s dream. Experiment with an infinitely customizable menu of java, then purchase bags of beans (around 57,000 pesos a pound) and big bottles of cold brew (49,000 pesos) to take home. The windows at the bar counter open out onto the bustling neighborhood, whose walls are covered in street art. At night, the scene is very different, but in the early morning, a soft sea breeze winds its way through the still-uncrowded streets, and fruit vendors cruise the plazas, making for perfect morning views over coffee.
9 a.m. | Climb a castle
On a hill near Getsemani, looming powerfully over Cartagena like the Parthenon over Athens, Greece, is San Felipe de Barajas Castle, a mandatory stop for comprehending the scale and brutality of Spanish colonial power and the city’s importance in Latin American history. Visitors to the 16th-century fortress, which was built by enslaved Africans, can walk through its warren of eerily lit underground tunnels. On the fort’s eastern side, a 21-minute animated film retells the site’s bloody battles (Spanish with English captions). While the process can be a bit disorganized, guides at the site offer private or group tours in English (price can be negotiated; generally around 100,000 pesos per person). For visitors with mobility limitations, note that it can be a hot 10-minute walk uphill to reach the fort, and once there, some parts are accessible only by stairs. Bring water.
11:30 a.m. | Squeeze into dining
The petite Sambal, on a busy Getsemani street, is easy to miss but a neat travelers’ find. Its narrow space belies a full-throttle menu of well-presented takes on local favorites, including ceviche topped with fried squid (50,000 pesos) and oxtail tacos (30,000 pesos). Service is attentive, but the ambience is low-key. An open kitchen allows you to smell your meal before you see it. Don’t skip the soursop cheesecake (28,000 pesos), one of the restaurant’s creative flavor combinations. Reserve the window seat for an entertaining view of buskers passing the neighborhood’s striking street graffiti.
1 p.m. | Shop at a bullring
La Serrezuela, on the eastern end of the Old Town, in an area called San Diego, is a shopping mall that has seen plenty of heart-pumping excitement. Constructed in 1893, it originally served as the town’s central theater and bullfighting arena. In 2019, a modern shopping mall was grafted onto the old wood and stone coliseumlike structure, creating a fluid juxtaposition of past and present that has earned global design accolades. Inside, find pieces from many of Colombia’s most coveted fashion brands: reversible bikinis at Maaji, leather weekender bags at Sabandija and crisp menswear at Victor del Peral. Open-air patios throughout offer views across the town’s wetlands, and the former bullfighting floor is now the food court, from which you can still see the arena benches.
5 p.m. | Rooftop hop
Don’t be inside during a Cartagena sunset. You could take a rooftop dance class set to local champeta music, an Afro-Colombian-influenced genre also called la terapia (the therapy), taught by locals through the group Black Legacy Experiences (about 123,000 pesos per person). There are many rooftop hotel bars in the Old Town to watch the sunset from as well — flit from spot to spot until one suits your vibe. Mirador Gastro Bar at Hotel Torre del Reloj has an up-close view of the city’s clock tower, which is breathtaking when lit up at night. Movich Hotel’s rooftop is one of the highest, with vast views from the infinity pool over the Old Town and to the Caribbean Sea beyond. Sophia Hotel has one of the larger rooftop pools, and offers a view of San Pedro Claver Church, the church whose eponym, Jesuit priest Peter Claver, is considered the saint of slaves (both pools are open only to hotel guests).
8:30 p.m. | Book a hot table
Celele, an intimate restaurant on a calm Getsemani back street, feels like a visit to someone’s home, with simple wooden tables, earth tones and exposed rafters. But the familial appearance is deceiving, as Celele stands high above Cartagena’s other restaurants. What started as a pop-up project around 2016 focused on resuscitating historic recipes with organic and local ingredients is now the most coveted seat in town. Chef Jaime Rodríguez captures Cartagena’s juncture between South America and the Caribbean in meticulously presented dishes: A smoked fish is covered in colorful flower-petal “scales” (58,200 pesos), and a coconut sorbet is served in a nearly soccer-ball-size pomelo (35,000 pesos). Reservations are essential.
10:30 p.m. | Explore nightlife
Get your bearings amid Getsemani’s exploding nightlife at the Plaza de la Trinidad, a rounded, church-anchored plaza popular with skateboarders, vendors selling skewers of meat, and roving rappers who create unsolicited rhymes for tips. Stroll down the colorful Calle del Pozo to reach the pedestrian-only lanes, colloquially known as Callejón Ancho and Callejón Angosto (wide alleyway and narrow alleyway). In the evening, tourists and locals cluster at plastic tables and lean against door frames, out of which some residents sell beer and rum drinks. When you are ready to dance, walk a couple of blocks to Café Havana for a night of twirling around a central bar surrounded by black-and-white portraits of salsa’s greatest musicians. Exuberant, 10-plus-piece bands perform until 2 a.m., for a cover charge of around 50,000 pesos.
10:30 a.m. | Recover with brunch
After a night of dancing, a late and lazy brunch hits the spot come Sunday morning. Townhouse Hotel’s rooftop in the Old Town merges Latin American flavors with bottomless mimosas and Bloody Marys (135,000 pesos for brunch and unlimited beverages), and a DJ and plunge pool keep the party going. A block away, the no-frills Café de la Mañana offers a much more chilled breakfast escape inside a cute, whitewashed home. There are only about a dozen tables, but the menu ranges from healthy picks like muesli with fruit juice (14,000 pesos) to a more hearty plate of chorizo and arepas (22,500 pesos).
The UNESCO-designated Old Town, Cartagena’s inner walled city, merges historical architecture with modern shops and restaurants, and is often compared to Old San Juan or New Orleans’ French Quarter.
Celele is a rising-star restaurant in the Getsemani neighborhood that serves elegantly presented Colombian-Caribbean dishes.
San Felipe de Barajas Castle is a 16th-century fortress on a rocky crag overlooking the city.
La Serrezuela is a former bullring and theater that has been re-imagined as a shopping mall packed with local design boutiques.
WHERE TO EAT
Mar y Zielo is a stylish, low-lit Old Town restaurant with great service and inventive dishes made with local ingredients.
Alquímico is an acclaimed multifloor bar and restaurant, and later in the night, a discothèque.
El Barón is an unpretentious restaurant and bar that pairs beverages and cigars on a popular square.
Libertario Coffee Roasters is a coffee-lover’s mecca in the middle of Getsemani.
Sambal is a small Getsemani restaurant with an open kitchen and a knockout dessert menu.
Café de la Mañana is a sweet little cafe in the historic center with affordable breakfast plates and icy cold coffees.
WHERE TO STAY
Casa San Agustin, a luxurious Old Town hotel with a spa and a pool, is near the elegant Alma restaurant and plenty of nightlife. Doubles start from around 2,300,000 Colombian pesos, or about $560 a night.
Casa del Coliseo is an upper midrange boutique hotel ideally located in the heart of the Old Town, with a rooftop pool and some rooms with street-facing, flower-covered balconies. Doubles start around 1,150,000 pesos.
Amarla Boutique Hotel is a seven-room hideaway in the Old Town with a checkerboard floor that can also be booked as a whole for groups. Doubles from around 992,000 pesos.
For short-term rentals, look in the Old Town or Getsemani, where most tourist sites are concentrated. Or, a short drive away, ocean views are available in the high-rises of the Bocagrande neighborhood.